I heard the hype and thought I’d hate him. So I put on Eminem just so I’d have an informed negative opinion and looked forward to the $5 I’d pocket at the local used CD store. Twenty tracks later, I couldn’t wait to play him again.
“God sent me to piss the world off,” says Slim Shady a/k/a Eminem a/k/a Marshall Mathers, the most disturbing entertainer I’ve cared about in years. See, I’ve laid low during the moral crossfire surrounding Snoop, 2Pac, Biggie and the others not only because I don’t like the glorification of bad behavior, but because these ruffians rarely touch my soul— they’ve been too hard attitudinally, too laid-back musically, and too into abusing power, the essence of gangsta. So I’ve rooted for brainy sensitive types like De La and Tribe until they too started stomping on daisies, or pop oddballs like Coolio until their gimmicks and hooks ran dry. Most times I’d rather chill to original old-school jams than rhyme-coated samples because I can’t get with the beats if some knucklehead is calling me a bitch.
Eminem most definitely is a knucklehead, but instead of making me angry, he makes me chuckle, wonder, even empathize. Yeah, I think he sometimes goes too far for a snicker or a shock, but that’s part of his appeal. Like when he tells a girl OD’ing on mushrooms, “The world’s not against ya/I’m sorry your father raped ya/So what, you had your little coochie in your dad’s mouth/That ain’t no reason to start wiggin’ and spaz out.” Those screwy little details turn the girl into more than a sick joke; they trip you up and implicate your own voyeuristic amusement.
So right, he’s a yuckster in the self-deprecating scumbag tradition. But when he says he hates himself 57 different ways during the course of The Slim Shady LP, I believe him. This loser plays his trailer-trash persona for laughs, but also pathos, and his ability to switch back and forth in the course of a single rhyme is what some people— even I— find upsetting. Should we be giggling when he says he’s considering drugging and molesting an underage girl or hauling off his daughter’s dead mother to the beach where he can dump the body and build sand castles over the murder weapons? In interviews, he says you should be able to tell when he’s kidding. But you can’t, and that ambiguity is exactly what has always given his dark comedy and horror heritage— from Pink Flamingos to South Park, Frankenstein to Evil Dead 2— its bite.
Eminem admits he’s a monster. If we’re to trust his lyrics, he takes the scariest drugs, terrorizes fat girls, staples his junior high school teacher’s nuts to a stack of papers. He also alludes to suicide attempts, being bullied constantly as a kid, undergoing shock therapy. And he says he has a disease they can’t name. It could— as he suggests several times throughout the album— be AIDS: Eminem admits he’s scared to get tested, and given all his boasting about his sexual and drug history, he’s got reason to be nervous. “I slap women, eat ‘shrooms and OD/Don’t cha wanna grow up to be just like me?” he asks in “Role Model.” He’s every asshole I’ve tried to avoid, and (though he wouldn’t pull a Linda Tripp) the implication is that he is you. He’s not the ghetto gangsta “other,” just an ordinary psychopath with extraordinary rhyme skills.
Like Debbie Harry, George Michael in “Wham Rap!” days, Betty Boo, and Mel Brooks, Eminem doesn’t flow. His whiny harangue and descriptive excess won’t fit
smoothly into the stark but subversively poppy arrangements, and that’s a good thing. But he does know rhythm, and he plays with and against his beats nimbly, almost joyfully. The few people who heard his 1996 indie debut said it imitated Nas. But on Slim Shady, Eminem sounds black only to the extent that any poor pale Midwestern weirdo who spent his teens on the East Side of Detroit would. (Topic: All of Detroit’s big-name rappers— Insane Clown Posse, Kid Rock, now Eminem— are white. Discuss.) Like every insecure blue-eyed MC, His Shadiness disses Vanilla Ice to prove he’s down, and his bitch-slapping smacks of similar overcompensation. Yet the well-intentioned critics who deem him homophobic are ignoring the context: Like Korn, he’s the butt of his own butt-fucking jokes. During one of them, he gets a crank call from some stalker who threatens to “melt in your mouth, not in your hands.” Eminem just laughs.
If he didn’t pick on himself so much, Eminem’s cinematic rage would be oppressive. Instead, it’s cartoony and sad, comedic and
tragic. The extremes that grab our attention are the same ones that could prove annoying once the inevitable overexposure sets in, and so I reserve the right to hate his guts in six months. For now, I think he’s pretty fly (for a severely fucked-up guy).
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on March 23, 1999